Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Between Love and Research

As I previously mentioned, I was able to spend a week at a Toucan rescue center that has come to harbor other animals as well. When I track toucans in the wild, it typically involves lots of walking and not a lot of opportunity to see the toucans. They are either blocked because of tree cover or once we DO see them, we try to keep a distance so that we don’t scare them, causing them to move unwillingly, skewing our tracking data. So, working with captive toucans was a great chance to get close to them, interact with them, and even watch their behaviour. 

The idea of the rescue ranch is to create active breeding programs for the species of toucans in Costa Rica, so most of the toucans are paired up. A pair of Emerald Toucanets are successful breeding partners and have had a few nests in the past. Toucans, Araçaris, and Toucanets all live in cavities, holes in trees, so each enclosure is provided with a stump and a dug out hole for nesting. I was excited to be able to conduct the seed trials on the Emerald Toucanets, because that is a species I haven’t seen in the wild, nor is it a species that we use for tracking in the regular research.

We included them in the seed trial to test a theory that the small the bird, the quicker the seeds will pass through their system. And, Toucanets are the smallest of the Toucan family. So, I entered the pair’s enclosure with various berries in hand to run the trial.

The trial is done by giving each bird a ‘cherry’, a ‘berry’, and then a ficus fruit. A stop watch is started after the ‘cherry’ is swallowed and then it is a waiting game. You watch and record the bird behaviour, if it is regurgitating the seeds, if it is defecating the seeds and once you have at least 2 seeds from the ‘cherry’, the seed from the ‘berry’ and there is no more ficus seeds in the poop, the trial is done. 

The female toucanet which is more familiar with people ate all of the berries from my hand almost immediately. So, I turned to give the male the berries as well and realized he was going to be a lot more difficult. I would hold out a fruit so it was obvious to him, put it in a location easy for him to get, and then would go stand by the female to make sure she wouldn’t swoop in and take the fruit before him, because then my trial would be messed up. After 20 minutes of picking up dropped fruit and task-fully re-placing them, the male had only eaten half a cherry and the berry. Too much time had passed to give me accurate results, so I scrapped his trial, no longer paying him any attention. But, as I sat there watching the female and occasionally glancing at the male, I got to see their true interaction.

The female would stay near me, seeing me as her free meal ticket. The male would fly to her, and she would fly away just before he would land next to her. So, he would follow, and she would move again. It was like she was always a step in front of him, and quite literally wanted nothing to do with him. He would occasionally pick at a piece of papaya in their fruit bowl and eat it. And then, as if to apologize for whatever he did to make her irritated with him, he took her a piece of fruit. He would make a low clicking sound, and she would greedily take the piece of fruit and swallow it. As soon as it was down, he would fly away, giving her space. Then a few minutes later, he would do it again. I chuckled to myself at the similarity of the behaviour between them and humans. An hour and 15 minutes in to the trial, I was almost done. I was just waiting for the female to regurgitate the berry seed and have a ‘clean’ defecation. When all of the sudden I saw the male regurgitate his berry...whole. not just the seed. The whole berry. That in itself is interesting, but I realized what he was about to do a second too late. Just as I thought, he flew straight to the female. And, I jumped up. If she were to eat that berry, my hour and 15 minutes would be wasted. My data no longer accurate. I walk to them quickly in attempts to scare the male away with his offering, but it just sped up the process. The female jumped for the berry and swallowed before I had moved 2 steps forward. It was 5.30pm and starting to get dark, so that was it. Nothing else I could do but try again the next day. I just couldn’t believe that the male threw up a berry just to feed the female, and obviously not caring, ate it. After I had been waiting over an hour. It isn’t so much even the waiting because at one point I sat in an enclosure with a pair of toucans for 5hours 38 minutes and 17seconds waiting for them to regurgitate a trial involving 5 ‘berry’ seeds (at the end of that amount of time I was still waiting for 4 seeds out of a total of 10 so we gave up). The thing that got me was the effort I had gone through to have the male eat the berries only for him to give it up in the name of love. All the frustration aside, I must say it was absolutely adorable and quite funny to watch how they were together and to get a sense that they were probably very good parents.

That Time I Got Attacked by a Bird

So, the summer of working with Rustic Pathways has come to an end and I have had an opportunity lined up to be a Research Assistant on a PhD study involving toucans. Back in May, I came out to Turrialba, the town where I will be doing most of the research, to do a few days of work and learn all about tracking toucans and araçaris. So, when I returned from my visa run to Mexico, I expected to start tracking again. However, I got an amazing opportunity to travel out to ‘The Toucan Rescue Ranch’ to do seed trials with another volunteer on captive toucans. That is basically a technical way of saying I got to feed caged birds wild berries and wait for them to either vomit them or crap them out. The upside to the experience was being in such a great place- literally filled with all sorts of animals and beautiful birds. The downside (other than the obvious of staring at bird poop) was having to deal with the group of 5 araçaris, particularly the blue banded one. Araçaris are in the toucan family, have large bills, and make loud, sharp noises. Because they live in groups and are all in an enclosure together, each bird has a different colour band around their legs so that we can tell them apart. The blue band Araçari just didn’t like me. I would step into the large enclosure and immediately it started flying past me as close to my face as possible without actually hitting me. A few times it even flew by and bit onto my wrist as it passed. Soon enough, I was terrified of the bird. I would look down, normally at some poop, and when I stood back up, I would find the bird right next to my face. ‘Uncomfortable’ isn’t accurate enough. The other volunteer it would more or less leave in peace. Maybe it was my red sweatshirt, maybe my bracelets, but the unavoidable point is that the bird would deliberately attack me to the point that I would shriek when the blue band Araçari was near me. A couple of the toucans would nibble on my finger every once and awhile, but only after I would offer it forward as a token of my appreciation for their cooperation. In general, we were able to collect a lot of data about the toucans and their diet in the wild. I got to see baby sloths, hold a baby silky anteater, and see a lot of cool birds up close. I even named a toucan Suzie May, and no, I do not know if it is a female, but it LOOKS like a Suzie May. I had toucans play with my rubber boots, parrots bite my sweatshirt, and a toucan even tried to steal fruit from me. A spider monkey held my hand, I fed baby toucans, got to pet two-toed sloths. But, only the blue band Araçari was able to make me cry.

Melanie vs Mexico

When traveling to Costa Rica, I didn’t need to have a visa, because 90-day tourist visas are the typical entry stamp given. What that means is in order to be in Costa Rica for an extended amount of time, I have to leave the country before my 90-days are up for at least 72hours in order to be re-issued a new 90-day tourist visa upon re-entering the country. So, after my near three months were spent working for the summer with Rustic Pathways, I decided to make my visa run to Mexico.

Now, I will be honest. I had no particularly large desire to go to Mexico. I felt like I should eventually go, as someone who has dedicated a lot of time to studying Spanish and learning about different cultures, because Mexico is so often referenced in [Spanish] classes. I figured if I had to spend a couple hundred dollars at least to leave the country and travel around, I might as well go to see my friends, who had just finished working their summers in Mexico and Honduras. So, I bought my round-trip flight. I was only in Mexico for 5 days and spent a large majority of that time in Tulum, which is in the Yucatan Peninsula.

My first afternoon was pretty normal; I travelled from Cancun via bus to Tulum so I could meet up with my friend Caroline. I mastered the whole ‘packing light’ concept that people rave about so it was easy enough for me to get around with just the duffle bag carry-on. I met up with Caroline and spent a significant amount of time walking around in the dark back streets while trying to find a hostel for me to stay in. Now, I say this, but it wasn’t dangerous, nor did I really mind because we had a lot to catch up on. But, quite literally an hour after I got to town, we found the recommended hostel (and trust me, Tulum is too small to end up walking around for an hour in the same 4 square blocks). The hostel was only around $12 a night. Score. So after dinner, I went to sleep early for my full day at the beach the next day.

Tuesday was a very great day. I spent my first day since May on the beach. I couldn’t believe it- 3 months in Costa Rica and I hadn’t even been able to properly tan. So, I sure got it in by sitting for 8 hours on and off under the sun. The weather was good, it was fairly quiet. It was exactly what I was looking for on my ‘vacation’.

Now, Wednesday is when things started to get weird. I set off to a cove to snorkel with sea turtles with Caroline while we waited for our other friend, Olly, to get into town that evening. I was so excited about the sea turtles. I had been thinking about it for days and had no idea what to expect. Within 15minutes of us getting to the beach, we realized there was a bit of chaos unfolding. A girl was coming out of the water hysterically crying, I was thinking jelly fish sting? But, then I saw it as I looked a bit further up the beach. Someone was visibly getting CPR.There was a crowd starting to form around the group of lifeguards, and it was obvious this recently started. Caroline and I stood at a distance watching for at least 10 minutes while CPR was being given, other officials were getting into action, and finally someone came with an oxygen tank from a nearby dive shop and hooked it up to him. Both of us being first aid trained, knew that although he may be breathing, after such a significant amount of time receiving CPR, it would be very near impossible for him to make any type of recovery. We don’t know anything about what happened, his relation to the girl (because it was apparent she in some way knew him), or even where he was from, though he was a bigger, white guy. At about 15 minutes of us watching, the ambulance arrived and he left on a stretcher with an oxygen mask. Within minutes, the beach was back to normal, but it was hard to jump into the water after potentially seeing a drowning victim. So, we sat on the beach. Eventually, we rented the snorkel gear and went out into the water, and I immediately freaked out as soon as I saw my first sea turtle. I say ‘first’ because I saw many, as they fed on the sea grass. I was able to get so close and take lots of photos, up until my waterproof camera that I had used in the water before decided to longer be waterproof. Feeling drained from the day’s highs and lows, I returned to rest before Olly got into town. When we met up later that evening at the apartment Caroline was staying at, things felt a bit more normal. And, during a catch up session with Olly, I decided to help myself to a glass of water. It wasn’t until I tasted the slight saltiness that I realized what I had done. In Costa Rica, I had been accustomed to drinking the tap water, which is something that is very safe to do with the exception of a few costal towns and isolated areas. But, I wasn’t in Costa Rica, I was in Mexico. And, the scene from the Sex and the City movie literally flashed through my head. For those that aren’t familiar, it is when Charlotte accidentally drinks some water in the shower while in Mexico and almost immediately after had diarrhea resulting in her crapping her pants. Great. Now I’m in for it, I thought. I literally broke the one cardinal rule of Mexico. The day had been a series of unfortunate events. Which fortunately for me, did not end with embarrassing, explosive bowel movements.

Thursday started normal and I got to swim in a ceynote which is a really cool thing. My mom can probably explain it better than I can, because she was the one who told me about them (I cannot express enough that I literally knew nothing about where I was going in Mexico, or really even Mexico itself until I landed- I called a friend on my way to the airport before leaving Costa Rica to ask for the exchange rate of dollars to the local currency which I found out was pesos). Basically, it is a freshwater pool which often has numerous underwater caves that are scuba dived, which sounds super cool- but I am not padi certified, major fail, so I just swam around- enjoyable none the less. In the evening, after the most amazing BBQ ever at another local hostel, the three of us made our way to Playa del Carmen- which is more or less the halfway point between Cancun and Tulum. My flight was leaving the next morning, so I decided to opt for only taking the bus for 1 hour, also I wanted to scout the area because I had a potential job opportunity in the town. I bought my 8.05am bus ticket for the next morning, since I had such an early flight. And then, we hit the town. Playa del Carmen has a main street that is sort of like Hollywood Blvd on crack. You almost think you are in California with the massive amounts of tourists, variety of restaurants, bars, souvenir shops. Almost. Besides the guys hustling to sell you drugs and the obscene amounts of tequila for sell. Skip the rest of the night, which didn’t involve drugs nor tequila, and you have me the next morning being accused of being drunk and trying to get on the 10am bus with an 8am ticket, because I thought it was 8am. Silly me, I had Caroline set her alarm for 9.45am...when my flight was leaving at 10.50am from a city an hour away. Do the math, and you already know I definitely missed that flight, with out any hesitation. I learned my lesson though, because my re-route stuck me in Mexico City for 8 hours, which would have been a great opportunity to get out and see the city, if I hadn’t been so...well, hung over. Instead, I slept on and off like a bum in the airport, only for my 9.30pm flight to be delayed until 12am, increasing my layover in Mexico City. I was so happy to leave the country, honestly. I arrived into San Jose at around 2ish in the morning, crashed at a friends apartment, got up at 7am to head to the beach on the Pacific side of Costa Rica for the weekend, and I was so happy to be back. Although, I had some winning points in Mexico, it definitely kicked my ass. I think I would like to go back, and spend more time traveling, but maybe in a few years.